What causes the swirl of tornadoes and hurricanes

Some weeks ago, I presented an explanation of why tornadoes and hurricanes pick up stuff based on an essay by A. Einstein that explained the phenomenon in terms of swirling fluids and Coriolis flows. I put in my own description that I thought was clearer since it avoided the word “Coriolis”, and attached a video so you could see how it all worked — or rather that is was as simple as all that. (Science teachers: I’ve found kids love it when I do this, and similar experiments with centrifugal force in the class-room as part of a weather demonstration).

I’d like to now answer a related question that I sometimes get: where does the swirl come from? hurricanes that answer follows, though I think you’ll find my it is worded differently from that in Wikipedia and kids’ science books since (as before) I don’t use the word Coriolis, nor any other concept beyond conservation of angular momentum plus that air flows from high pressure to low.

In Wikipedia and all the other web-sits I visited, it was claimed that the swirl came from “Coriolis force.” While this isn’t quite wrong, I find this explanation incomprehensible and useless. Virtually no-one has a good feel for Coriolis force as such, and those who do recognize that it doesn’t exist independently like gravity. So here is my explanation based on low and high pressure and on conservation of angular momentum.  I hope it will be clearer.

All hurricanes are associated with low pressure zones. This is not a coincidence as I understand it, but a cause-and-effect relationship. The low pressure center is what causes the hurricane to form and grow. It may also cause tornadoes but the relationship seems less clear. In the northern hemisphere, the lowest low pressure zones are found to form over the mid Atlantic or Pacific in the fall because the water there is warm and that makes the air wet and hot. Static air pressure is merely the weight of the air over a certain space, and as hot air has more volume and less density, it weighs less. Less weight = less pressure, all else being equal. Adding water (humidity) to air also reduces the air pressure as the density of water vapor is less than that of dry air in proportion to their molecular weights. The average molecular weight of dry air is 29 and the molecular weight of water is 18. As a result, every 9% increase in water content decreases the air pressure by 1% (7.6 mm or 0.3″ of mercury).

Air tends to flow from high pressure zones to low pressure zones. In the northern hemisphere, some of the highest high pressure zones form over northern Canada and Russia in the winter. High pressure zones form there by the late fall because these regions are cold and dry. Cold air is less voluminous than hot, and as a result additional hot air flows into these zones at high altitude. At sea level the air flows out from the high pressure zones to the low pressure zones and begins to swirl because of conservation of angular momentum.

All the air in the world is spinning with the earth. At the north pole the spin rate is 360 degrees every 24 hours, or 15 degrees per hour. The spin rate is slower further south, proportionally to the sine of the latitude, and it is zero at the equator. The spin of the earth at your location is observable with a Foucault pendulum (there is likely to be one found in your science museum). We normally don’t notice the spin of the air around us because the earth is spinning at the same rate, normally. However the air has angular momentum, and when air moves into into a central location the angular speed increases because the angular momentum must be conserved. As the gas moves in, the spin rate must increase in proportion; it eventually becomes noticeable relative to the earth’s spin. Thus, if the air starts out moving at 10 degrees per hour (that’s the spin rate in Detroit, MI 41.8° N), and moves from 800 miles away from a low pressure center to only 200 miles from the center, the angular momentum must increase four times, or to 40 degrees per hour. We would only see 30 degrees/hr of this because the earth is spinning, but the velocity this involves is significant: V= 200 miles * 2* pi *30/360 = 104 mph.

To give students a sense of angular momentum conservation, most science centers (and colleges) use an experiment involving bicycle wheels and a swivel chair. In the science centers there is usually no explanation of why, but in college they tend to explain it in terms of vectors and (perhaps) gauge theories of space-time (a gauge is basically a symmetry; angular momentum is conserved because space is symmetric in rotation). In a hurricane, the air at sea level always spins in the same direction of the earth: counter clockwise in the northern hemisphere, clockwise in the southern, but it does not spin this way forever.

The air that’s sucked into the hurricane become heated and saturated with water. As a result, it becomes less dense, expands, and rises, sucking fresh air in behind it. As the hot wet air rises it cools and much of the water rains down as rain. When the, now dry air reaches a high enough altitude its air pressure is higher than that above the cold regions of the north; the air now flows away north. Because this hot wet air travels north we typically get rain in Michigan when the Carolinas are just being hit by hurricanes. As the air flows away from the centers at high altitudes it begins to spin the opposite direction, by the way, so called counter-cyclonally because angular momentum has to be consevered. At high altitudes over high pressure centers I would expect to find cyclones too (spinning cyclonally) I have not found a reference for them, but suspect that airline pilots are aware of the effect. There is some of this spin at low altitudes, but less so most of the time.

Hurricanes tend to move to the US and north through the hurricane season because, as I understand it, the cold air that keeps coming to feed the hurricane comes mostly from the coastal US. As I understand it the hurricane is not moving as such, the air stays relatively stationary and the swirl that we call a hurricane moves to the US in the effective direction of the sea-level air flow.

For tornadoes, I’m sorry to say, this explanation does not work quite as well, and Wikipedia didn’t help clear things up for me either. The force of tornadoes is much stronger than of hurricanes (the swirl is more concentrated) and the spin direction is not always cyclonic. Also tornadoes form in some surprising areas like Kansas and Michigan where hurricanes never form. My suspicion is that most, but not all tornadoes form from the same low pressure as hurricanes, but by dry heat, not wet. Tornadoes form in Michigan, Texas, and Alabama in the early summer when the ground is dry and warmer than the surrounding lakes and seas. It is not difficult to imagine the air rising from the hot ground and that a cool wind would come in from the water and beginning to swirl. The cold, damp sea air would be more dense than the hot, dry land air, and the dry air would rise. I can imagine that some of these tornadoes would occur with rain, but that many the more intense?) would have little or none; perhaps rain-fall tends to dampen the intensity of the swirl (?)

Now we get to things that I don’t have good explanation for at all: why Kansas? Kansas isn’t particularly hot or cold; it isn’t located near lakes or seas, so why do they have so many tornadoes? I don’t know. Another issue that I don’t understand: why is it that some tornadoes rotate counter cyclonicly? Wikipedia says these tornadoes shed from other tornadoes, but this doesn’t quite seem like an explanation. My guess is that these tornadoes are caused by a relative high pressure source at ground level (a region of cold ground for example) coupled with a nearby low pressure zone (a warm lake?). My guess is that this produces an intense counter-cyclonic flow to the low pressure zone. As for why the pressure is very low in tornadoes, even these that I think are caused by high pressure, I suspect the intense low pressure is an epee-phenomenon caused by the concentration of spin — one I show in my video. That is, I suspect that the low pressure in the center of counter-cyclonic tornadoes is not the cause of the tornado but an artifact of the concentrated spin. Perhaps I’m wrong here, but that’s the explanation that seems to fit best with the info I’ve got. If you’ve got better explanations for these two issues, I’d love to hear them.

5 thoughts on “What causes the swirl of tornadoes and hurricanes

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